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The Year After the Riots: American Responses to the Palestine Crisis of 1929-30, by Naomi W. Cohen

Riot and Response

The Year After the Riots: American Responses to the Palestine Crisis of 1929-30.
by Naomi W. Cohen.
Wayne State University Press. 204 pp. $24.95.

Some 130 Jews, including eight Americans, are slaughtered during a week of Arab rioting in Palestine. In both Britain and the United States, amid dire predictions about the bleak future of a Jewish homeland, the riots are blamed on unsatisfied Arab political and economic grievances. As the State Department looks on benignly, the British embark upon a policy of placating the Arabs by breaking commitments made to the Jews. American Jewry, divided and disorganized, and apprehensive over homegrown anti-Semitism, offers a disjointed and ineffectual response to British actions and American inaction. Some American Jews even abandon the goal of a Jewish national home and instead advocate a binational solution in Palestine.

Although these events evoke certain contemporary parallels, they in fact occurred between August 1929 and October 1930. How Americans and particularly how American Jews responded to the Arab riots of those years is the focus of Naomi Cohen’s absorbing and timely new book, The Year After the Riots: American Responses to the Palestine Crisis of 1929-30.

Mrs. Cohen, a longtime professor at Hunter College and the author of a number of important studies in 20th-century American Jewish history, begins by providing a thumbnail sketch of the key developments of the period. She notes that while the immediate cause for the disturbances was Arab anger at Jews praying at the Western Wall, the riots in fact arose after a long period of Arab discontent. They underscored the contradictory nature of Britain’s pledge to Jews and Arabs: was Palestine to be the Jewish national home, or was its Arab majority to be granted self-rule? After the riots, ostensibly to examine their root causes but in reality to whitewash British and Arab responsibility, the British government appointed a commission of inquiry. Its report, issued at the end of March 1930, duly traced the events to Arab political and economic frustration, supposedly caused by Jewish immigration and unfair economic advantage in Palestine.

A second commission of inquiry, appointed to investigate economic conditions in Palestine, recommended in October 1930 that Jewish immigration be curbed. Simultaneously with the publication of this report, the British government issued a white paper endorsing the commission’s findings and establishing limits on Jewish immigration and land settlements. It is with this milestone that Mrs. Cohen concludes her study. In a brief postscript she explains that although the British subsequently retreated somewhat in the face of Jewish protests, in the long run policy did not really change.

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When it comes to American responses to the riots, her real subject, Mrs. Cohen focuses first on the State Department—at that time, as she writes, a small, elitist institution under strong Protestant missionary influence and permeated by anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Even though there were several Americans among those who died in the riots, and even though American Jews and a number of Congressmen were urging the Department to act, it refused to take up the Zionists’ case. Instead, inclining toward the British and Arab positions, the Department attributed the Arab riots to Jewish provocation. The only thing restraining the Department from offering even greater support for British policies and Arab goals was a directive that the United States avoid being drawn into the dispute. Whatever American pressure on the British might or might not have accomplished, the absence of such pressure certainly bolstered Britain’s anti-Zionist policies.

Mrs. Cohen proceeds to examine the response to the riots of American Jewry, a response which was eagerly attended to by Jews around the world, including in Palestine itself. That response was incoherent and for the most part ineffectual, hamstrung by internal disunity and by the dearth of non-Jewish support. American Jews were divided between a non-Zionist majority and a Zionist minority which was itself fragmented by personal and interorganizational disputes. Prominent Zionists like Louis Brandeis remained aloof from the organized movement, in part because of an internal power struggle.

The Zionist Organization of America saw the riots as an opportunity to bolster its plummeting membership; non-Zionists in the Jewish Agency saw an opportunity to “moderate” Zionist goals. Some American Jewish leaders, like the philanthropist Felix Warburg, believing that a Jewish majority in Palestine was unattainable, felt that Jewish interests in Palestine would be best served by improving economic conditions for all the inhabitants of Palestine. Judah Magnes, an American Jew who was chancellor of the Hebrew University and an ally of Warburg, called for a binational state in Palestine, thus legitimating and strengthening Jewish and non-Jewish opposition to a Jewish homeland. And so forth.

Both the British and the American governments paid close attention to the response of the general American public to the riots. In the immediate aftermath of the events there was in fact a great deal of public sympathy for the Zionist cause. But, partly as a consequence of the inadequate and uncoordinated reaction of organized Jewry, public perceptions soon changed; the Arab rioters came to be viewed as the underdogs, the Zionists as anti-democratic militarists. Palestine Jewry was depicted in the press as an artificial entity, reliant for survival on help from co-religionists abroad. Zionists soon found themselves forced to defend once again the very concept of a Jewish national home.

The history which Mrs. Cohen recounts is a depressing one. She does not exaggerate the significance of the 1929 riots or the importance of American reactions. In this period, American Jews were not as yet the acknowledged center of the Diaspora, and the riots themselves were not, in and of themselves, an irreversible turning point in the Jewish struggle for Palestine. But they did, she shows, provide a standard against which later developments could be measured. In hindsight, both the antagonism of the State Department and the muted response of American Jewry presaged reactions by both parties a decade later to British policy in Palestine and to the Nazi campaign against the Jews.

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Although the utility of counter-factual history is generally limited, one cannot read Mrs. Cohen’s book without reflecting on what might have been had American Jewry only acted differently. Of course one cannot unequivocally assert that a united and unified community would have prevailed against the combined opposition of the British government, the State Department, Protestant missionaries, the press, and a social atmosphere tinged with anti-Semitism. And, certainly, one cannot derive summary judgments of American Jewry’s actions in the late 20′s from a post-Holocaust, post-1948 perspective. All that being said, however, Mrs. Cohen is justly critical of the American Jewish community, and leaves little doubt that a more concerted effort would have ameliorated British policy to some extent, and perhaps have made it possible in later years for a certain number of Jews fleeing the Nazis to have gained refuge in Palestine.

Beyond all of this, what makes Mrs. Cohen’s book much more than simply an extremely interesting historical study is the subject’s continuing relevance to events in today’s Middle East. For one thing, it offers a useful reminder of the deep-seated roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Without belaboring the analogy between the riots of 1929 and the current disturbances in what was formerly mandatory Palestine, one need simply note the continuing portrayal of Zionism as the obstacle to Arab self-determination in Palestine and the fact that many people—both Arab and non-Arab—continue to disparage and subvert the very notion of a Jewish state.

In the nearly six decades since the riots, much in the United States has of course changed. American society is much more open and pluralistic; anti-Semitism as a constraint upon Jewish activism has diminished. Whatever the shortcomings of today’s State Department, its views on the Middle East are clearly not comparable with those held during the 1920′s, 30′s, and 40′s. And while internal divisions and feuds among American Jews have hardly vanished, the battle for Jewish hearts and minds has been won by the Zionists.

Some things have changed less, however. The demographic arguments for a Palestinian Arab state and predictions about such a state’s presumed democratic nature continue to resonate, as do assertions about the supposed demographic problems facing the Zionist state. Protestant antipathy toward Zionism persists in some quarters, albeit in a different form. A number of people, including some Jews, are prepared to sacrifice Jewish “parochial” nationalism on the altar of universal justice. And Jewish critics of Israel are still used to legitimate criticisms of Israel by others. In some respects, the position of Zionism has even regressed: the same international organization which in the late 40′s helped to legitimate Zionism now works to delegitimate it. And anti-Semitism has once again found a semi-respectable cover in anti-Zionism.

With this book, therefore, Naomi Cohen has performed a notable service. Apart from its great merit as a work of historical reconstruction, The Year After the Riots is a hauntingly resonant reminder of the nature and the intensity of the test to which the organized American Jewish community has been repeatedly put in this century, and which it has on more than one occasion tragically failed to meet.

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About the Author

Michael J. Lewis, a frequent contributor, teaches at Williams College. He is the author most recently of American Art and Architecture (Thames & Hudson)




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